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City Council authorizes drone use by the Spokane Police Department

UPDATED: Tue., Oct. 16, 2018, 7:52 p.m.

FILE – A Washington State Patrol trooper prepares to launch a drone over the scene of skid marks at a crash scene near Fifth Avenue and Maple Street on Sept. 14, 2018, in Spokane. (Dan Pelle / The Spokesman-Review)
FILE – A Washington State Patrol trooper prepares to launch a drone over the scene of skid marks at a crash scene near Fifth Avenue and Maple Street on Sept. 14, 2018, in Spokane. (Dan Pelle / The Spokesman-Review)

The Spokane Police Department is now authorized to use drones when investigating crimes and when trying to locate missing or fleeing people after the City Council approved a resolution 5-2 Monday night.

The resolution bars officers from flying drones over private property without the landowner’s permission or a warrant and allows police to search for campsites in hard-to-access areas.

The police department does not have its own drones yet, but has worked with the Spokane Fire Department in the past to reconstruct accidents. The Spokane County Sheriff’s Office has offered the use of its drones to the police department while they train officers and purchase their own devices.

Councilwoman Karen Stratton, who supported the ordinance, said she received calls over the summer from people who live along the river who were concerned that hidden campsites could lead to fires and other dangers.

The county’s drones are equipped with accident reconstruction and thermal imaging software, but aren’t practical for long searches and other time and resource intensive jobs, said Spokane County Undersheriff Dave Ellis. He said the drones are usually used for accident reconstruction rather than searches and pursuits due to limited battery life.

Ellis said the sheriff’s office drones are upgraded versions of what is commonly available on the market and usually can’t spend a significant amount of time in the air.

Councilwoman Kate Burke and Councilman Mike Fagan voted against the resolution, saying not enough feedback had been gathered before the vote.

Fagan said he also took issue with the last sentence of the resolution, which bars police officers from using unoccupied aerial vehicles to monitor First Amendment activities. He said drones might be useful when police are working around volatile protests.

This article was clarified on Oct. 16 to denote when police officers are required to use warrants to operate drones.


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